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How a meat truck driver and prison guard helped solve one of WWII's most enduring naval mysteries
The USS Eagle 56 was only five miles off the coast of Maine when it exploded.
The World War I-era patrol boat split in half, then slipped beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. The Eagle 56 had been carrying a crew of 62. Rescuers pulled 13 survivors from the water that day. It was April 23, 1945, just two weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany.
The U.S. Navy classified the disaster as an accident, attributing the sinking to a blast in the boiler room. In 2001, that ruling was changed to reflect the sinking as a deliberate act of war, perpetuated by German submarine U-853, a u-boat belonging to Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine.
Still, despite the Navy's effort to clarify the circumstances surrounding the sinking, the Eagle 56 lingered as a mystery. The ship had sunk relatively close to shore, but efforts to locate the wreck were futile for decades. No one could find the Eagle 56, a small patrol ship that had come so close to making it back home.
Then, a group of friends and amateur divers decided to try to find the wreck in 2014. After years of fruitless dives and intensive research, New England-based Nomad Exploration Team successfully located the Eagle 56 in June 2018.
Business Insider spoke to two crew members — meat truck driver Jeff Goodreau and Massachusetts Department of Corrections officer Donald Ferrara — about their discovery.
The USS Eagle 2 (PE-2) on builder's trials in 1918. An identical sister ship, USS Eagle 56 (PE-56), was lost due to a mysterious explosion April 23, 1945(U.S. Naval Historical Center)
Goodreau and Ferrara, along with their crewmates Ryan King, Danny Allan, Bob Foster, Nate Garrett, Josh Cummings, and Mark Bowers, are featured in "The Hunt for Eagle 56," a Smithsonian Channel documentary series set to air at 9 p.m. on Sunday, September 22.
Goodreau works as a meat truck driver in Massachusetts. But diving has been his passion since the age of 18, after his employer hosted a number of scuba excursions.
"I was hooked from the first dive," Goodreau said. "It was really cool. I found out early shipwrecks are what I'm meant to do. I really believe that that's what I was put here to do, to find shipwrecks."
Ferrara said he was first sucked into the world of diving by watching famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau on television, as a kid.
Goodreau described becoming interested in pursuing "deeper and darker" dives as time went on; or, as Ferrara puts it, "crazier and stupider" underwater adventures. They became immersed in the world of technical diving, which National Association of Underwater Instructors defines as "a form of scuba diving that exceeds the typical recreational limits imposed on depth and immersion time (bottom time)."
King, Allan, and Goodreau first teamed up to find the Eagle 56 in 2014. The rest of the crew came together in the subsequent years. The Eagle 56 was an obvious choice for the for the Nomad team.
"I'm a shipwreck nerd, always have been," Goodreau said. "The Eagle 56 was always the shipwreck to find. That was the great ghost of New England. A lot of people looked for it. Nobody could find it."
But the Eagle 56 was never going to be an easy find. Goodreau described the ocean floor north of Cape Cod as a labyrinth of rocky mountains and canyons. The Eagle 56 was a "fairly small" boat. And, though the crew didn't know this at the time, it was lodged in a trench.
"It's kind of like the equivalent of dropping a soda can into canyon and putting on a blindfold and going and finding it, because you can't just look down and see it," Goodreau said. "Visibility's 10 feet. It's pitch black."
Even worse, the crew's expensive magnetometer ended up being somewhat of a bust, thanks to the undersea terrain.
"It turns out that the rocks off of Maine aren't only big, they're full of iron," Goodreau said.
Again and again, the crew would finish out a summer diving season empty-handed. They spent the winters intensively reading up on the sinking, trying to pinpoint the ship's coordinates. That research had an unintended side effect.
"You kind of get to know these guys," Goodreau said, of the Eagle 56 crew members.
Ferrara added that, as a Marine veteran, he feels an affinity for the crew members who died in the attack. He said that most of the men on board were quite young.
"They were lost for 73 years," he said.
But the team stuck with the search and, ultimately, found the wreck in June 2018. Goodreau and Ferrara say that, as a result, they've gotten to know plenty of relatives of the lost crew members.
The Nomad team members were even invited to the July 2019 Purple Heart ceremony for Seaman 1st Class James Cunningham, who died in the Eagle 56 sinking. Cunningham was 21-years-old at the time of the sinking. Goodreau and Ferrara say that Cunningham came from a family of Tennessee sharecroppers, and that he enlisted in the Navy when he was 18. Cunningham sent them his Navy paychecks so that they could buy a house, a property which the family still owns today.
Sadly, one group that the Nomad team will never be able to share their discovery with are the 13 survivors of sinking. They have all died.
"Some of the survivors were engineers," Goodreau said. "Some went to their graves feeling that people blamed them for the explosion."
The Nomad diving team will now search for the torpedo that took down the Eagle 56. And, in the meantime, they will remain cautious when diving in the area where the ship sank.
"You don't want to disturb them," Ferrara said. "You want to be very respectful, when you're there."
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